Mystery Shopper: Rutabaga keeps it low key but good

You can't really miss Rutabaga, especially if you are a paddler in the Madison, Wis., area. Just follow your nose to the water's edge and find the gray building with windows that look like portholes and that backs up to a lagoon. Sort of a big gray whale with windows ready to leap into the water. In fact, right after our SNEWS® operative drove up, a bunch of kids got out of a school bus and pranced their way through the parking lot to hurry down to the fenced-in area behind the building where all the boats and equipment for classes are likely stored. Since it was just about 3:30 p.m., it had to have been an after-school class ready for put in. It was a stream of excitement.
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SNEWS® heads to Madison, Wis., with an undercover operative sent into Rutabaga -- we've heard they’re good, so let's see. Still, as we always like to point out: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store -- or to praise one particular store or person -- but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, hopefully, offer a learning experience. Each and every shopping experience can be widely different, even at any one store or with any one person. Don't forget to visit our Training Center (www.snewsnet.com/trainingcenter) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

You can't really miss Rutabaga, especially if you are a paddler in the Madison, Wis., area. Just follow your nose to the water's edge and find the gray building with windows that look like portholes and that backs up to a lagoon. Sort of a big gray whale with windows ready to leap into the water.

In fact, right after our SNEWS® operative drove up, a bunch of kids got out of a school bus and pranced their way through the parking lot to hurry down to the fenced-in area behind the building where all the boats and equipment for classes are likely stored. Since it was just about 3:30 p.m., it had to have been an after-school class ready for put in. It was a stream of excitement.

With similar excitement, Tina walked into Rutabaga, ready to shop for gear that would keep her warm. The unseasonably warm weather for early October had just that day turned a bit, a harbinger of winter to come. Tina was to tell a tale of being a runner and visiting friends who were paddlers who suddenly suggested they go paddling that weekend. Gee, what would she need? Although she has paddled occasionally, it had only been in warmer water and weather…. She didn't want to spend a fortune, but this paddling thing DID intrigue her, so maybe she would consider investing a bit more too.

Tina had been in the store about three minutes perusing the shelves and stock, out of the corner of her eye watching a woman employee hanging on the counter talking on the phone. She heard voices of at least one other employee helping somebody, but nobody had yet to greet her or ask if she needed any assistance. But the female employee was getting antsy, Tina could tell, about not helping the customer milling the store. She hung up the phone, hurried around the desk to get to her -- and just that sec, the phone rang again. She looked dejected, but wheeled around and darted back to answer it. Too bad she hadn't at least called out to Tina to say she'd be right with her.

Our shopper had managed to find what seemed like apparel and gear to wear while on the water. She circled, circled again, fingered gloves and suits and tops. Then suddenly a young blonde male employee surprised her from behind: "Can I help you find something?" he asked. He was obviously a paddler himself, dressed in the cap, merino top and sorta scruffy-looking baggy khakis and wearing an amulet on a leather cord on his neck that paddlers seem to wear. Although casual, he seemed confident, knowledgeable and ready to help Tina.

"If I knew what I was looking for…" Tina said, trailing off. He asked what it was for. She explained her tale. And he puzzled a moment, understanding her need to not necessarily invest a lot right out of the gate, but agreed it would be pretty cold. "I'm trying to think of something multi-use," he said, so she could wear it also running, for example. He paused and pondered, seemingly not sure where to take her, so Tina turned to the rack of NRS tops she was standing next to and asked what the difference between them was. He leaped back into action from his pondering moment and explained the differences in tops and materials in a clear, concise, non-techy way, including how neoprene worked and what this HydroSkin stuff was and how it differed.

"Is neoprene waterproof?" Tina asked. He responded: "Yes, you could hold water on it, but if you went swimming, water would come in the bottom or arms. But it's supposed to. The water then acts like a layer of insulation."

"Oh! Like with scuba divers!" Tina said. "Exactly," he answered.

But he was still thinking multi-use for Tina's maybe one-time experience and pocketbook. Good for him to go back to that. Of course, they hadn't really figured it out yet.

Since it wasn't terribly cold yet, he suggested a HydroSkin top under which she could put a running top she owns for extra insulation. She could also then wear the HydroSkin top running or biking later. Of course, he still pointed out the sale tops and one-piece suits. The prices were good and he said she could also consider getting it all in a one-piece "Jane." Not a bad idea, she said, fingering the suit, which also happened to come in her size AND was on sale. But she admitted, she really didn't know if she wanted to do that yet.

So they circled the NRS display together, looking at the selection as he continued to mull over her options. He pointed out a paddle top that was Gore-Tex. "Oh, well, why can't I wear my Gore-Tex jacket then?" she asked, trying to turn him back to the multi-use concept. "Sure, you could," he said. "These are just designed to keep water from coming in around your wrist and running down your arms. You could even wear your regular Gore-Tex rain pants over tights if you wanted."

"Oh, that's a good idea!" she said, glad she had nudged him in that direction again.

At the front of the display again, they sized up the footwear since she asked about it and he explained the booties and socks and why one had soles and one didn't.

"This one you wear with your Chacos or something," he said, using an insider brand name for the first time. Then he picked up the NRS Rodeo Socks, "and these are ready to go."

After sizing up the options for her hands, he said the most important thing probably was to make sure she had something for her feet, hands and core, which … hm … really was about everything, wasn't it? Of course, they had already figured out that for this one time, she could perhaps get away with her running stuff for the torso, but the feet and hands would need some help.

"If I knew where you were going, I would suggest better," he said, since she had only mentioned a direction and she thought it was some lake, not so helpful since there are so many places to paddle in the area. He did say the water would be cold, maybe 50 degrees or so.

Tina wanted to talk to her friends about her options before she bought, however. "Can you write down my choices?" she asked the young man, who was still without a name. He jotted down a few names and notes, and suggested she and her friends look at the website to help her decide together.

"How long are these on sale?" she asked. "Awhile still," he reassured her.

"OK, I can talk to my friends tonight and come back," she said, satisfied that the notes and hands-on assistance would now help her decide on a few accessories to keep her happy on her first Wisconsin paddle.

"Cool," he said. "See ya."

SNEWS® View: The lack of pressure was really nice, although Tina didn't know if she was really a "ya" kind of woman, as in "see ya." Still, she was definitely an info hound taking notes and wanting to see it all before she decided. The young guy (the one who remained nameless) went for the ride, likely perceiving there wasn't a sale in it for him that night but there could be when she came back. He understood the multi-use concept, but had a hard time going with it totally, because he did keep looking at the pure paddling stuff. Maybe if he'd really pointed out a couple of accessories out of the gate that she could add to her running gear, she would have indeed bought on the spot.

He was casual and laid-back, but not in an off-putting sort of way. Just had confidence that he knew what he was talking about. The interaction was short (she was in the store for about 18 minutes), but the experience was pleasant: The exchange of information helpful; the store clean, bright and pleasant-looking; and the stock well-organized and labeled.

Now if only the sales guy had a name too! How many times do we have to keep bringing this small detail up with stores until everyone has a nametag. It's just a courtesy gang.

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